The minorities of our nightmares

Published : 2 Oct 2012, 12:57 PM
Updated : 2 Oct 2012, 12:57 PM

Are you afraid to go to bed these days, out of fear that the forces of evil will leap out of your nightmares to rampage through your neighbourhood while you are asleep? If you have been following stories of recent attacks on minorities – first in Rangamati on September 22, then in Ramu starting at the late hours of September 29 – you would be. If you are not, you ought to be, at least if you care about yourself, about your dreams. If you ever dreamed of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Bangladesh, then need I tell you that what are under attack are not just the ethnic or religious minorities in faraway places, but also your very dreams and ideals?

In mid-August, in a note that I shared with my Facebook friends, I made a casual remark that "for all the people who long for a democratic Bangladesh, it is still a prolonged hour of nightmares."  The immediate context of our discussion was surrealism in art and poetry. In that context, I was just trying to make the point that for many of us who grew up in the CHT, and for ethnic minorities generally, living in Bangladesh has been something of a surreal existence, more precisely like living through nightmares. As I skim through news reports over the attacks on Buddhist communities and temples in Ramu (and subsequent attacks, some targeting Hindus as well, in other parts of Chittagong), my eyes are drawn to a headline "A night of joy turns to nightmare" in a local English daily, carrying the story of a community that was preparing to celebrate a Buddhist festival the next day, only to see their plans and preparations give way to a sleepless night, when they had to watch homes and temples burn to ashes.

As news of the attacks in Ramu spread, strong condemnations have been voiced throughout the country, and government officials and media personnel rushed to the spot. Unfortunately, some news headlines indicate that the blame game or witch hunting also started in no time. The politicization of criminal activities can only mean allowing the real culprits to get away, if not encouraging them to carry on their acts. Therefore, it is perhaps not a surprise that after Ramu, similar attacks were reported to have taken place yesterday in other parts of Chittagong. Why is it that the law enforcing agencies always seem late in responding to situations like this?

This question came up last week as well, in the context of attacks in Rangamati carried out by rioters that remain to be identified officially.   Nonetheless, it was interesting that the outbreak of violence in Rangamati was instantly reported as a "clash between Paharis (hill people) and Bengalis". I wrote a short piece, published in a Bangla daily, in which I questioned this tendency. I raised a simple question:  Of the entire population of Rangamati, say 60,000 people altogether comprising of various ethnicities, how many did really take part in, or condone, the attacks that were described as inter-ethnic clashes? 60? 600? 6000? Whatever may be the actual figure, it could not possibly constitute more than a small fraction of the total population. Given this, why was it that we allowed a minority (i.e. the real perpetrators of violence) colour the views of the rest? Why were we quick to describe the unfolding development as "clashes between indigenous hill people and Bengalis (or Bengali settlers, as specifically mentioned in some English dailies)"? My point was that such characterizations and perceptions mainly help the real perpetrators hide behind nameless, faceless mobs. Moreover, they also turn our attention away from the systemic roots of violence, namely state policies and laws that are discriminatory towards ethnic and religious minorities.

A Facebook friend of mine who lives in Ramu, provided a status update yesterday, saying, "The religious and communal harmony that we the residents of Ramu have always been proud of has been reduced to dusts in one night" (Translated from original post in Bangla). Many commented on his status expressing shock and anger at what had happened. More generally, through posts on the Facebook and blogs, there was expression of a strong sense of disgust and outrage that most people felt at the atrocities. "Shame!", "Is this the Bangladesh that we dreamt of?", "Is it what people died for in 1971"? – These were some of the typical reactions.

It seems to me that the kinds of anguish and soul-searching that are represented by the last two questions above are particularly strong among Bengalis (or Bangladeshis) who see themselves as embodying the ideals of the War of Liberation of 1971. What were these ideals?  One was the idea of 'communal harmony', which now lies shattered in places like Ramu. Government officials or many political leaders and intellectuals in Bangladesh may not like to admit it openly, but the sad truth is that communal harmony had been shattered on numerous other occasions in this country in the past. The incidents like that in Ramu by themselves do not necessarily indicate that the majority of people in Bangladesh condone such acts. In fact, personally I am convinced that in a statistical sense, the criminal elements of society targeting the ethnic or religious minorities constitute minorities themselves. But the question remains, how is it that people belonging to the latter category of 'minorities' can dictate terms for the rest of us?

To me, a big part of the answer to the above question lies in the Faustian pacts that two generations of Bangladeshis made with undemocratic regimes in the '70s and the '80s. We know how the euphoria of 1971 began to evaporate in the face of enormous challenges that the new country faced. For the country as a whole, the year 1975 marked the crystallization of deep fractures in the polity of a young nation, fractures that in many ways remain unresolved to date. In fact, for the ethnic minorities of the CHT, their alienation and marginalization began as early as in 1972, when police and BDR operations purportedly conducted against war time collaborators resulted into acts of brutalities, and the newly drafted constitution also disregarded the existence of non-Bengali ethnicities. Even though the concept of Bangladeshi nationalism was introduced after 1975, one cannot say that this was done for the sake of ethnic minorities. Instead, it was part of fundamental changes introduced in the constitution of the country, involving increased manipulation of religious sentiments of the Muslim majority as a clever ploy to legitimize powers grabbed illegally. Moreover, on the ground, by the end of the 1970s, the whole CHT region had become heavily militarized, with thousands of destitute households from the plains being resettled in the hills in a manner that made it abundantly clear that the Bangladeshi state did not really look at the ethnic minorities of the CHT as trustworthy citizens of the country. Did people in the rest of Bangladesh know much about what was going on in the CHT? I doubt it. Unlike today, there was very little in the media about the CHT during 1975-1990 when the whole country was under de facto military rule. But there is an even deeper question. Even if there were people who knew about what was happening in the CHT, did they care, or could they have done much about it? No, apparently not. Be that as it may, the 1980s were a period when economic liberalization took roots in Bangladesh, with active international support, and tolerance of rampant corruption at the highest echelons of power. It was during this period that a new class of entrepreneurs-politicians-bureaucrats consolidated their hold on power and wealth, with very little regard for the ideals and principles of 1971, or the older social values of tolerance and pluralism associated with rural Bengali communities. If holding onto power meant declaring Islam to be the state religion, and entering into alliance with political elements known to support bigotry, so be it. This is what I meant by the Faustian pact.

The forces that are invading the dreams and cherished ideals of most decent people in Bangladesh may indeed constitute a minority. But they seem well organized, and ready to pounce whenever the time is ripe, as have been shown on numerous occasions. Moreover, they may enjoy the support of those who made pacts with the devil. Such people too may be minority in numerical terms, but they have money and power on their side. Are we ready to face these merchants of despair and destruction who have leapt out of our nightmares?

Prashanta Tripura is a development professional and former teacher, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher